Secrets and Lies
Mary Kaye Schilling
[Original article here]
Will ”X-Files” answer viewers’ questions? — The Fox sci-fi drama promises to reveal some secrets in the season finale
X-Files‘ actors live in mortal fear of it: the big kiss-off from series creator Chris Carter. The bell doesn’t toll often for regular characters (among the unlucky few: Deep Throat, X, and Bill Mulder), but the possibility hovers, like an alien spaceship, over the cast. For one actor, the phone rang days before shooting began on a momentous two-parter, a sweeps event that Fox is trumpeting as ”The X-Files conspiracy…exposed!”
Divulging the identity of this doomed player would, of course, ruin the second episode’s penultimate shocker (there are two humdingers). Let us instead relive the actor’s bittersweet moment of (you know) truth: ”Just before I got the script I got a message to call Carter’s office. He was very calm. He said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you about the episode.’ And I said, ‘Are you going to fire me?’ And he said, `No, but I am going to shoot you.’ He said to trust him, it was going to be a very noble death. I said, ‘I do trust you, implicitly.”’
The victim pauses here for comic effect. Not only because the nature of a character’s death is the least concern of a soon-to-be-unemployed actor (one who relocated from Vancouver to L.A. when the show did the same last summer). But because of the inevitable punchline: ”And Carter said, ‘Trust no one.”’
Trust is to The X-Files what Nothing was to Seinfeld. For just as Jerry’s sitcom was a whole lot of something, Carter’s drama is very much about finding the people you can trust, the few who do speak the truth. In the case of FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), that person is his partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).
But in the case of X-Files fans, whom can they trust about this latest claim that the conspiracy — Carter’s ongoing plotline involving aliens, government deception, deadly black oil, and killer bees — will be explained? After all, similar promises went unfulfilled last summer with the release of the franchise’s first film, The X-Files — a visually stunning movie that nonetheless created more questions than it answered. ”I think people were frustrated because the studio’s ads [‘The Truth Is Revealed’] implied that everything was going to be tied up,” says Duchovny. ”And then it wasn’t.”
”I never claimed to be revealing more than I did,” insists Carter. And believes X-Files executive producer Frank Spotnitz, ”the truth meant something different to everyone who walked into the show.” Spotnitz, who developed the movie with Carter, is one of the few writers at Ten Thirteen (Carter’s production company) who can make heads or tails of the conspiracy, or what Carter calls the Mythology. And in his mind, ”the movie did reveal very explicitly a lot of things. But other people might have been expecting the truth to be about something else, like Samantha.”
For the uninitiated, Samantha is Mulder’s sister, abducted by aliens when she was 8 and he was 12. His search to find her has led to his and Scully’s series-long quest to learn the truth about extraterrestrial life on Earth. From that simple concept has developed the most brazenly complex arc ever attempted by a television drama. Indeed, it is a veritable Machiavellian maze, so tangled with intrigue and betrayal that even dedicated fans find themselves scratching their heads bloody. Duchovny acknowledges that this is ”hard on people who just tune in occasionally.” And it makes attracting new fans nearly impossible — a problem illuminated by the movie, which focused exclusively on the conspiracy rather than showcasing one of the series’ stand-alone stories featuring creepy genetic mutants and the like.
Though its very respectable $187 million worldwide take is a testament to the show’s powerful fan base (and virtually guarantees a sequel), Carter and Spotnitz admit that since the movie failed to lure X-Files virgins to the franchise, it was something of a disappointment. ”I hoped we would have reached more nonfans,” says Spotnitz, who found stringing two seasons together creatively confining. ”I’m looking forward to the next movie because I anticipate the show will be over, and we’ll be free to reinvent ourselves.” (Carter is contracted only through the show’s seventh season, ending in May 2000; an eighth is unlikely given his desire to concentrate on X movies.)
Perhaps more distressing was the show’s dip in ratings this season. Though still a major hit for Fox, The X-Files is down 16 percent in total viewers (now averaging 16.8 million versus 20 million last season). Carter blames the network’s schedule shuffling; Fox replaced X‘s old lead-in, King of the Hill, with the freshman sitcom That ’70s Show, causing the 8:30 slot to lose 34 percent in viewers. ”Our nice lineup has a hole in it,” says Carter. ”Not to take anything away from That ’70s Show — they’re trying their best — but it is struggling.” He also points to CBS’ Sunday movie, now drawing big audiences (it ranks ninth among viewers; X is 13th). ”It changes the quality of the pie,” he adds. ”The slices get smaller for everyone.”
But has the increasingly unwieldy conspiracy also alienated some original fans? Spotnitz doesn’t think so, though the upcoming doubleheader is a way to lighten the load: ”We didn’t know until shortly before [Chris and I wrote the two-parter] that we were going to do it. But after the movie, when we sat down to do the next Mythology show, it felt like the right time. We realized we had reached a critical mass, and that to complicate it further — to dangle another piece of the puzzle — was just too much. And so we got excited suddenly at the idea of everything coming to a head now. It didn’t seem expected to us.”
Carter insists the conspiracy is believable because of its complexity. Yet he’s also aware that the clock is ticking toward the series finale. ”I was thinking today, I have another 28 episodes left. We’ve got to prepare for a big unravel. We figured it would be better to explain the conspiracy now, and make that last arc more emotional and action driven, with less baggage to carry.”
In other words, Carter acknowledges the density of his creation. He will not, however, admit to what plagues many fans: profound confusion. The conspiracy, he maintains, ”is not as complicated as you think.”
Hanging out with the conspiracy’s supporting players is probably a mistake. They are relentlessly cheerful: The more dour they are on camera, the sunnier they are off; Mitch Pileggi (Assistant Director Skinner), William B. Davis (the cancerous Cigarette Smoking Man — or CSM), and Chris Owens (CSM’s son, Agent Spender) smile entirely too much. Way to kill a mood, guys.
But to a man — and this includes Dean Haglund, Bruce Harwood, and Tom Braidwood (Mulder and Scully’s geeky helpers, the Lone Gunmen), and Nicholas Lea (dastardly renegade Krycek) — they are baffled by Carter’s Mythology. Of the upcoming two-parter, Lea admits that after he read the scripts, ”they needed to be explained about four times. Other than that, it was really clever.” He laughs. ”But that’s kind of like the norm. You read a script, then call someone to explain it.” Harwood finds hardcore fans helpful. That they can explain it, he says, ”is scary in itself.”
Skinner is the character most in the dark (a visit to the set reveals even his desk calendar is out of it: The date reads August 1995). And it’s a state of mind Pileggi can relate to. ”I don’t feel either of us has a handle on” the conspiracy, he says. For the two-parter he stuck to his usual methods of preparation: ”I just read my parts and play it as if I don’t know what’s going on. It’s always a surprise when I watch the shows.”
”I am happy that Mitch sees that as a positive,” cracks Duchovny a few days later. ”You know, whatever works for you…. I can’t believe he’s telling people that.”
Duchovny is in his trailer (which, unlike Mulder’s apartment, features a big, tousled bed), waiting to be slimed with black goop for an episode involving a hurricane; given that the wait has just exceeded five hours, he’s remarkably chipper. It’s no secret that Duchovny is occasionally frustrated by the limitations of his character (Mulder, by necessity, is fairly static in his obsessive skepticism and paranoia). So it’s surprising to hear him speak eagerly about the inevitable movie franchise: ”Not that I want to play Mulder for the rest of my life, but my fantasy is to take him into different eras of his life.” Instead of going the James Bond route, he says, where you fire the actor when he gets too old, ”let’s see how funny it is when a guy like this is behaving the same way at 53.”
To keep himself interested in the meantime, Duchovny has written and, for the first time, will direct an X-Files episode (airing in April). ”It’s about the Negro leagues, and an alien who falls in love with baseball. I really love the script, I have to say,” he says, somewhat sheepish in his pride. ”I remember finishing it and going, I wish I had a better director, because I think it could be one of the best episodes we ever did.”
Darren McGavin will star, returning as former FBI agent Arthur Dales of last season’s ”Travelers” — a flashback episode that featured a pre-X-Files Fox Mulder sporting a yet-to-be-explained wedding band. ”That was just me, you know, fooling around,” admits Duchovny, who clearly enjoyed the resulting Internet frenzy. ”I had recently gotten married, and I wanted to wear it. The director was really nervous. ‘You have to call [Chris] to see if the wedding ring is okay.’ I didn’t, until [after the scene was shot]. When I did call, Chris goes, ‘What!?’ I said, ‘No, it’s good. It’s so Mulder to never have mentioned that he was married.’ And he says, ‘Well, that creates a problem. If we ever do a show that takes place seven years ago, you’ll have to be married.’ I said, ‘Do you really have a lot of shows in your head that are going to take place seven years ago?”’
Arthur Miller once wrote: ”He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain.” One could say the same of Carter. Though he’s always known where the conspiracy will end up, he’s been as startled as viewers by the twists and turns occurring along the way. ”The story starts to tell itself,” he says. ”And that’s been very exciting.” But surprises extend beyond his Mythology. For instance, though humor has long been an X-Files hallmark, this season the writers are giving Ally McBeal a run for its funny money (most notably in a hilarious two-parter featuring Michael McKean as an Area 51 official who assumes Mulder’s identity). ”It was something we noticed we were doing after the fact. I think it was a reaction to the bigness and importance of the movie,” says Spotnitz, who adds that the show’s move to L.A. may have subtly encouraged a general lightening of tone.
This drama, in fact, does humor better than most sitcoms, and at no expense to the credibility of its darker, scarier episodes. More remarkable, given X‘s potential for Twin Peaks overload, is the show’s elasticity; it continues to evolve even in its sixth season. ”I’m very impressed that we’re still growing,” says Duchovny. ”It’s funny the way the show organically takes on a form of its own. Nobody decided we were going to turn it into a comedy this year. And we did for a while.”(For those unamused, Spotnitz says the show will follow a straighter path for the rest of the season.)
Even more unexpected, say Carter and Spotnitz, is Mulder and Scully’s escalating affection — something that was strictly taboo during the show’s first couple of years. Coexecutive producer Vince Gilligan, who came on staff in season 3, remembers getting some flak over a mere hint of intimacy in his episode ”Pusher” (about a psychokinetic ninja): ”I scripted that Scully touches Mulder’s hand at the end. And Chris and Frank went, ‘Oh, this is too much, too soap opera-y. But the fans went nuts.”’ And they still do: It was Mulder and Scully’s near kiss in the movie that provoked the greatest whoops of audience pleasure.
Carter has no problem with the ripening sexual tension, but he wants the relationship to remain platonic. ”From an actor’s standpoint, it’s too bad,” says Duchovny. ”I would like to complicate the situation rather than maintain it in this limbo we’re told people like. We’ve been able to go places with the relationship over the years, but we don’t build on it. But that’s the nature of the show — there’s never any accumulation of experience.”
The characters may not accumulate experience, but the facts of the conspiracy have certainly piled up. And at this point in this story, you are probably wondering: When are they gonna reveal something, anything about the two-parter? (Hey, watching The X-Files for six seasons has at least taught us how to tease.) Without spoiling too much: The two episodes will, with breathtaking efficiency and comprehensiveness (the scripts reach as far back as the first season’s finale, ”Erlenmeyer Flask”), establish Cigarette Smoking Man not just as the enforcer of the Syndicate (the government splinter group in cahoots with aliens bent on colonizing the earth), but the conspiracy’s very heart (or lack of one). At long last, his true motives will be revealed — and without, thank God, justifying his cold-blooded methods.
”One of the things that’s always bothered me about TV shows is that as they get older, everybody starts to become a good guy,” says Spotnitz. ”All the conflict is gone because everybody has been rationalized [Revealing CSM’s reasons] is not a desire to make him good — just a way of understanding his character.” So, yes, ”he is still just the worst guy.”
Part 1 begins back in a familiar railway-car operating room, where doctors have finally achieved what the Syndicate and the aliens have been collaborating on since Roswell: a successful alien/human hybrid — none other than repeat abductee Cassandra Spender, former wife of Cigarette Smoking Man, mother of Agent Spender, and last seen being abducted again in season 5’s ”Patient X.” ”One of the first ideas for the two-parter was that Cassandra was going to be returned,” says Spotnitz. ”And the end of the conspiracy, as it’s being promoted, is in the explaining of her importance.”
Though Nazi references have peppered episodes since the first season (as in Purity Control, the name for the hybridization project), they proliferated in the movie, which established the Syndicate as a sort of Vichy government, collaborating with the aliens to save their own sorry hides. The two-parter will continue that story line, with the faceless aliens (the ones with a penchant for torching folk) fulfilling the role of the Resistance. A tidy metaphor, yet (one feels it’s necessary to point out) Nazis as definition of evil — well, hasn’t that been done before? ”Chris’s vision for the show — which all of us acknowledge — is, that, you know, what we’re dealing with is so ridiculous,” says Spotnitz. ”So you need to do everything to make it seem believable, like analogies to things we know to be true.”
Left unanswered: the burning question of Fox Mulder’s paternity. (Duchovny is going the Star Wars route, assuming CSM is Mulder’s Darth Vader of a father: ”It makes mythological sense.” Carter will only add, ”We haven’t said definitely not. What we have said is that he is definitely Samantha’s father.”) Nor will we learn the true significance of Gibson Praise, the psychic brainiac kid, who, according to this season’s premiere, was some kind of missing link. ”The kid — and most certainly the idea of the kid — will come back, [probably] next year,” says Spotnitz. ”He’s key in explaining the idea, argued in the movie, that aliens were here before, and that this kid has got alien DNA, and perhaps all civilians have it.”
In the meantime, we’ll have plenty of drama to entertain us — including a potential alien invasion. For though most of the players’ motivations will be explained, Mulder’s Holy Grail — Samantha — must still be found. This season’s remaining conspiracy episodes, says Carter, will deal with the ”men and women left standing. How are these people going to survive [an alien invasion] and to what lengths will they go to do that?”
”The analogy I make in my own mind,” says Spotnitz, ”is that these episodes are like the fall of the Soviet Union. Players and pieces are still there, but what happens will change the dynamics of everything.”
Carter and Spotnitz are tentatively planning a three-parter to end this season, something they’ve never done before. As for next year, any bets on who’ll be left standing in the series’ finale? ”Out of a cloud of dust, Krycek will walk,” predicts Dean Haglund of the show’s ultimate rogue, the one-armed Rat Boy. Harwood agrees: ”He might have only one leg left, but he’ll be the last one standing.”